Yungang Grotto

Nicholas Quirke was impressed by the ease with which he could now move around China and its relics on 17 April 2021. At this time in 2020 the checks to get in anywhere seemed onerous and part of him believed that this was how China operated but now the spectre of COVID19 was slowly being erased by vaccinations and a more aware society he simply showed the bit of paper he possessed while waiting for the return of his passport and he was through, no questions asked and of course free. The site they were headed to was the Yungang Grottoes located about 16 km west of the city. It was a beautiful day with dazzling blue skies though the drive there was through an industrial landscape and he found it hard to believe that one of China’s treasures was located in the mining area. It was a jewel indeed that was situated in the valley. An outstanding example of the Chinese stone carvings from the 5th and 6th centuries. There are 53 major caves, along with 51,000 niches housing the same number of Buddha statues and an additional 1,100 minor caves. A Ming Dynasty-era fort is still located on top of the cliff housing the Yungang Grottoes. On viewing the site was similar to the lauded Mogao cave he had visited in Dunhuang visitors were allowed to travel round at their own free will , rather than be guided about and allowed to see only a handful of the sites that the southern Silk Road example allowed. Possibly this freedom was given because of the exposure of the statues and grottoes to heavy weathering as many of the caves have over the centuries been exposed and vulnerable to windblown dust and air pollution from the industrial city of Datong, dust from mines and highways near the site and its proximity to the Gobi Desert and its storms contribute to the decay and pose a threat to the preservation of the ancient statues. Though photographs were forbidden the secret use of his Go pro now around his neck meant that he could capture some of the incredibly beautiful carvings and images as well as the riot of colour and stories that some of the caves possessed. There were temples, gorgeous landscapes, an actual segment of ancient road with tracks made by the carts 1000 years old. They had tea in a calm and cool tea rooms, took photos of the inappropriate dinosaur models before heading back to the hotel where they waited for the car rental owner to come and collect the car and take them to the station. It was a very different route he saw on the way back to Beijing. The landscape had seemed ghostly and bleak on the journey to Datong but in the clear blue skies on the journey home it seemed a rural paradise. The pace they had set over the two days in Shanxi Province had been exhausting but it didn’t stop them from watching a movie when they got home and after sampling a new vegan burger, unpacking and freshening up, ‘Nobody’ was the perfect kick ass violent black comedy to finish the week. Satisfied and sated he welcomed the need to sleep.

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